Facebook, Twitter and YouTube fought against lawmakers’ charges on Tuesday that the tech companies’ business is built on warping reality and addicting users.
The new scrutiny of tech companies’ algorithms — the programming that filters and directs traffic on the internet — added fuel to policymakers’ fire for cracking down on tech through new laws, regulations or antitrust action.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said he had not decided whether the government should intervene in the tech companies’ affairs but that the problem with algorithms was clear.
“The business model is addiction, right?” Mr. Sasse asked at a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary privacy, technology and the law subcommittee. “Money is directly correlated to the amount of time that people spend on the site.”
Monika Bickert, Facebook vice president for content policy, said addiction wasn’t the company’s business model. She said Facebook focused on long-term user retention as opposed to users’ persistent, undivided attention.
Lauren Culbertson, the chief of U.S. policy at Twitter, said the algorithms can add value to its users’ lives.
Alexandra Veitch, the director of government affairs for Google-owned YouTube, said the proliferation of bad information was not in its interest.
Algorithms help to determine what content you see on social media platforms, how often you see it, and who sees your content.
Democrats and Republicans want to rein in Big Tech’s power. Democrats tend to favor breaking up what they say is its monopolistic hold on internet commerce. Republicans largely support curbing its perceived power to censor online content.
But no consensus exists among policymakers about whether or how the government should proceed.
Several Republicans have offered proposals to clamp down on tech, but Mr. Sasse cautioned his colleagues against thinking they could fix the algorithm problem simply because they were aware of it.
Canyon Brimhall, the libertarian R Street Institute’s federal government affairs manager, told The Washington Times that the government only makes the situation worse.
“Every time Congress holds a hearing, the federal government shows why it should leave the internet alone until it better understands the problems it is trying to solve,” he said. “They should start instead by convening stakeholders to unpack these complex issues … In other words, they should spend more time listening and less time positing solutions for soundbites.”
Critics have accused the tech giants of offering bonuses to employees who use the algorithms to keep users constantly online.
At the hearing, Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, pressed the companies about offering financial incentives to workers who cook the algorithms.
“The results can be harmful to our kids’ attention spans, to the quality of our public discourse, to our public health, and even to our democracy itself,” Mr. Coons said.
The executives from YouTube and Twitter did not directly answer yes or no to his question about paying engagement bonuses. Twitter’s Ms. Culbertson, however, offered to provide the senator with private information that it shares with advertisers and investors.
Facebook’s Ms. Bickert insisted that her company did not give its engineers paid incentives to drive engagement and disputed that it sells users’ information.
“We don’t sell user data. That’s not the way our advertising model works,” she said. “The way it works is an advertiser selects from among different targeting criteria and then we deliver that ad to a relevant audience.”
Still, those types of actions pose dangers and potentially damage society’s ability to address issues ranging from youth education to national security, said Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology that advocates for technology that supports the well-being of society and democracy.
“If Russia or China try to fly a plane in the United States, they’d be shot down by our Department of Defense, but if they try to fly an information bomb into the United States, they’re met by a white-gloved algorithm from one of these companies that says, ‘Exactly which ZIP code would you like to target?’” Mr. Harris told lawmakers. “It is the opposite of national security. What a cannon was to a castle, social media is to the nation-state.”
Critics of the large technology companies have sought to leverage public anger with algorithms into momentum for their various policy prescriptions.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, called for scrapping legal liability protections afforded to internet companies and said it was time for the federal government to show tech who’s the boss.
“It’s time that this Congress did something about it to show who’s really in charge,” Mr. Hawley said. “It’s not them, it should be the people, it should be us.”
Other critics want to crack down on tech now, too, but they caution against viewing any single approach as a quick fix.
“There is no silver bullet solution that will address all harm while preserving freedom of expression and human rights,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the tech activist group Fight for the Future. “But one thing is clear: Big Tech has shown they are unwilling or unable to responsibly make decisions about what content should be amplified or suppressed. … We’re calling for an industry-wide moratorium on all algorithmic manipulation of content that is not wholly transparent and that cannot be easily controlled by the user.”
Democrats came at the algorithm issues from various directions.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who has been an outspoken proponent of antitrust action against the tech titans, viewed it as further evidence that Big Tech needs to be broken up into smaller pieces.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, used the occasion to push for the “Clean Slate for Kids Online Act” that would give children and their parents the right to delete data collected on children under age 13.
Mr. Coons summed up the dilemma facing lawmakers.
“None of us wants to live in a society that as a price of remaining open and free is hopelessly politically divided or where kids are hooked on … their phones and being delivered a torrent of reprehensible material,” he said. “But I also am conscious of the fact that we don’t want to needlessly constrain some of the most innovative, fastest-growing businesses in the West. Striking that balance is going to require more conversation.”